"The Baby in the Tree" by Shawn Dell Joyce
A short story based on the Hudson River School and the philosophy of Transcendentalism.
The storm howled outside the tiny RV rocking and shaking it in a way that made me ponder just how fragile and thin the fiberglas walls were. Tiny explosions like mortars rained down on the roof. I tied to reassure myself that they were only twigs and black walnuts, but they sounded like all hell was breaking loose.
I pulled the blankets up tightly to my chin. What self-defeating urge do I have to place myself in harm’s way like this? How did I end up in this tiny box out in the wilderness of Saugerties, in a hurricane that downgraded to a thunderstorm as it tracked inward from the coast.
The fatigue of the day, and heavy grief of the divorce weighed on me. The storm was pushing me into a “dark night of the soul” kind of sadness. I felt utterly alone. In truth, I was alone, a middle-aged woman, alone in the world, and in danger.
“Don’t be silly!” I thought, reminding myself it’s just a storm, and the veracity seems amplified by the small fiberglass camper. It’ll blow over.
Soon enough it did. The dark arms of sleep wrapped around me and pulled me into sweet oblivion. Too tired for dreams, and no nightmares nibbled at the edges of my deep slumber.
The next morning brought an explosion of color. As a painter, I’m amazed how a little rain and a dip in temperatures brings out the fall foliage almost overnight upstate in New York. I woke to sunlight streaming through the skylight, birds and squirrels running about the campsite, a slight chill in the air, and glorious golden-orange color like a halo in the trees. Perfect day for painting.
I loaded up my gear and packed a sandwich. “Never go into battle without a pb&j!” my mom always said when she handed me my lunch for school. I smiled, seemed so long ago that I went to school. Forty years have passed since then.
Leaves fluttered gently from the trees like snow flakes wending their way to the ground in a swirling and circuitous route. I drove through the village dotted with old Victorian houses and out to the surrounding neighborhoods where houses were spaced more evenly apart. My car lifting up swirling columns of leaves from the street and leaving them streaming behind it as it passed. A few more mile, then across a single-lane bridge until the houses thinned out even more. These were newer construction, more like Colonials, large and impossible to clean in a single day, all lined up in neat rows like soldiers in formation.
I checked my navigation, where was that damned GPS leading me? This couldn’t be right! I was trying to find a secluded nature preserve, not a neighborhood.
The neighborhood abruptly ended at a field, with a small copse of trees, one bearing a small wooden sign saying “Mawignac Preserve.”
“You have arrived” announced my GPS in a dry Alexa-style default GPS voice.
I parked the pick up and got out. An overgrown trail led off to the right, it was barely visible like a trail made by deer hooves on grass, no real path or pavement. To the left was billboard sign at eye-level with a rendering of one of the Colonial-style houses saying “Coming Soon, Single Family Homes starting $650’s.”
I realized that this preserve was no longer preserved and I may be the last person to paint it. Mawignac Preserve sat on Catskill Creek, and was one of the few unpaved places where you could view the creek and paint without getting run over by a car. I loaded up my gear; tripod, pochade box, water, hat, pb&j, and set out into the underbrush.
The air was heavy with the humidity of last night’s storm, but the trees were full of life and color. I passed through fields of chest-high grasses with various species of trees from the usual Oak and Pine to Maple and Birch, many were clearly very old, their trunks thickened by time, branches dipping low to the ground, some set off by themselves in the field, others clustered in copses.
The morning was warming up, and my thoughts began to drift as I walked through the sunlit forest paths. The air was crisp and clean after the storm, birds twittered in the shrubs and trees, squirrels scampered around collecting the fallen booty knocked loose by the storm. It was calm and peaceful. Just what I needed.
I was celebrating the finalization of the divorce by taking a painting trip. This was the third stop on that trip, in as many days. I had hoped that the painting and camping trip would lift my spirits and remind me that I was better off alone than with someone who did not appreciate or respect me. Instead, I was just feeling alone.
The only time I felt truly alive it seemed, was when I was painting. Then I felt connected to something primal and real, a source outside myself that I tapped into. A creative flow coursed through me and onto the canvas. Regardless of the end result, the act of painting took me outside of myself and my own inner world, and gave me some peace of mind. I could lose myself in the flow and let go of the grief, even just for a little while.
This stop was also made famous by my favorite historic artist Thomas Cole, who had painted here as well, more than two hundred years earlier. Cole was the beating heart of the Hudson River School group of artists that depicted this region in their paintings. What I loved about his work, and the others, was the idea of Transcendentalism, the landscape was a living and breathing thing, not ours to plow and pave.
Before the storm, I had painted at Platte Clove, sitting by a waterfall while clouds gathered overhead. The day before, Monday, I believe, I had painted at Cole’s house which is now a museum and is laid out like a small farm with garden in the back, a separate building for his studio, and a small, interesting gift shop. It was there that I found out about this place.
Finally I reached the creek, or a place where I could glimpse the creek. There wasn’t much to see. Just a flat bank and fast-moving water with grasses on the other side of the bank. I was disappointed. Where was the bend in the river? The one where you could see the foothills in the distance, framed by large oaks?
Crestfallen, after schlepping my gear a good mile or so, I looked for something else to paint. There was no shortage of beautiful scenery. I had to laugh at myself thinking the landscape would not have changed much in two hundred years. It was hardly recognizable. Did I really think I may stuble across a shepherd lounging on the bank with a small flock of sheep?
I had hoped for something more inspiring, but a good painter can make anything into art, as one of my old college teachers had once said. “Even a toilet is beautiful” he reminded me showing Duchamp’s urinal that he titled “Fountain” and signed R.Mutt. I never could understand that, or much about what passed for modern art. Especially why it was worth so much money when the real painters, the highly skilled painters, like Hensche, Sargent, Zorn, Sorolla and others were practically unheard of in popular culture.
I surveyed the landscape. A Sugar Maple, set in the center of the field, just beginning to turn golden yellow with a deep violet cast shadow called to me. Behind it was a tree line of conifers, in front of it was a light-drenched field of milkweed pods and grasses. Here was a painting waiting to be painted.
I set up under the shade of a nearby spindly Pin Oak tree and laid out my palette. Once set up, I made a quick sketch thinking how beautiful the yellow/violet complements would be, and how I would use yellow/green and pure Cadmium yellow light and dark for the foliage. Soon I became lost in my reverie. A hundred small decisions flooded my consciousness, blocking out the anger and loneliness of the divorce and replacing it with being totally absorbed in this very moment, and the splendor of it all.
Life simplified. Start with your darks and block in big areas of dark foliage and cast shadows with violet and blue/violet. Alizarin Crimson adds a touch or warmth to the dark for the trunk of tree hidden by shadow. Same color is in the grasses, warmer darks in the foreground. Ultramarine Blue added to it for the background, pushing that line of conifers back behind the Maple and into…..CRACK! BOOM! THUD!
Suddenly a loud noise shocked me out of my trance, and I stared in amazement as the very tree I was painting split almost in two and fell apart on the ground. Damn it! How did that happen?!
I dropped my palette and ran toward the tree, as if there were some art emergency where I could perform triage and save the life of the tree.
When I got to the tree, panting and out of breath, I saw that the tree split almost in two, and one half lay on the ground. The split trunk was soft inside, like sawdust. Two huge branches had wrenched away, and lay broken beside the main beam of the trunk. The whole shape of it riddled with holes, probably from a Pileated Woodpecker. I hadn’t even noticed them from a distance when I was sketching the tree. It was clearly ancient, and had been dead in places for a while, only one half of the tree remained upright and it was the part with the foliage still attached.
I marveled that the tree could be both dead and vibrantly alive at the same time. I laughed thinking about the old Zen koan “if a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it still make a sound?” Clearly it does. I stood regarding the tree that still stood in front of me but split in the middle.
My eyes fell upon a texture difference inside the tree. Toward the crook of the branches there was something smoother and browner than the powdered wood of the dead branch. I reached for it and felt it with my fingers. Smooth and soft like leather. Wait, it was leather! I felt around the edges and it was a small bundle wrapped in leather.
I found an edge and peeled it out of the tree where if seemed like the branch grew around the shape of it, hiding it for God knows how long until the branch died and broke off. The bundle was about the size of a football, but felt fragile and light in my hands. I carefully rolled the loose edge of the leather back exposing something inside. I gingerly lifted the edge higher and colorful fibers fell out, like something that had disintegrated over time. There in the center of the mass were tiny, brownish bones. I unwrapped another edge, exposing the center mass more…it was a tiny skeleton, fetal position, knees tucked under arms, skull against knees. It was frozen in this position, tiny flanges, tiny feet. As I moved the fabric, the bones didn’t move and I realized they were encased in skin, this was a mummy!
I panicked. I rewrapped the bundle and placed it back inside the tree. Oh my God! How did it get there. That was someone’s baby! My mind raced to my own baby, lifeless and dead in my arms, still born. It was traumatic. Birth was supposed to be joy-filled not like this. Sweaty and exhausted, bleeding from incisions after an emergency c-section, and all for nothing. The baby died, cord wrapped around her neck, she never got a chance to breathe. My grief was inconsolable and it all came back to me now, washing over my, enveloping me, lifting me off my feet like a tidal wave of grief.
Tears flooded me, and I dropped to my knees, not knowing what to do. My lost baby, my stillborn Rowan, dead in my womb, causing something to die in my heart that day as well. All hope was lost in me when she died. I was way too old to have a baby and her conception was a small miracle. I was 43 then, and the odds were against us already. I always wanted to be a mom and I knew this was my only and last chance. When she died in birth, my hope died with her, and a six year spiral of depression was born that day instead that ultimately ended my marriage. It all came back to me in this instance, sprawled out on the field, ugly-crying, and profoundly alone.
How could this happen? Why would God punish me like this and bring me face-to-face with my grief? Ambush me with the trauma of that day, and the rip it rendered in my life? Finally, a thought occurred to me that I should call the police. After all, this was a body, skeletal remains of a small human that may have been murdered. I should get the authorities involved.
I fumbled for my phone and managed to dial 911.
The police were less than helpful. “Look lady, this baby has obviously been here for a very long time!” officer Hernandez patiently explained. “This is not an open murder case, or even a missing child. This is an historic artifact.” He gestured toward the tree, “that tree has got to be 300-400 years old, and who knows how long that little baby was buried in it? Long enough for the tree to grow around the bones! You need an archaeologist!”
Hernandez retreated to the safety of his car, and I could hear the murmur of his police radio as he called in his report. The conversation went back and forth for what seemed like an eternity before he emerged again.
“I’m not sure what to tell you,” he looked sheepishly, “normally, we would leave the bones in place and talk to the landowner. This skeleton is so tiny it will disintegrate if we leave it exposed to the elements. We can’t find the new owner of the land either-this was a preserve but it recently sold to a developer. Dispatch put in a call to the NYS archaelogy department. They will send someone out later today. Can you stay with it?” He made a sweeping motion with his had toward the tree and the tiny remains.
I thought for a second how little the skeleton meant to him. He had no attachment to it all, like it could’ve been a baby bird, or a squirrel. He was indifferent and looked rushed.
“Yes, of course.” I intoned. No longer feeling like painting, but not being able to tear myself away from the scene yet. I looked at my phone. It was close to 10am. I had two hours to wait for the archaeologist. Just me, this broken tree, a dead baby, and my grief.
I sat with it for what seemed like an eternity. The remaining part of the tree still vibrant with color and life bathed me in cool violet shade for the time I sat in silence. Grief washing over me. I remember my ex-husband’s face in the delivery room. He looked stunned and shocked. No words passed between us. Just that horrible expression of utter helplessness and dismay contorting his features.
The cool breezes lifted my hair as I sat motionless, under the tree, the little bundle wrapped in leather beside me. I remembered the hospital room, nurses prying our dead daughter from my hands. You have to let go now a disembodied voice whispered from behind me, we need to sew up the incision. The weight of my daughter’s body lifted from my arms, her head lolling unnaturally off my elbow as they took her. A mask snapping over my nose and mouth. Same disembodied voices telling me Breathe! Breathe! Then sweet oblivion.
I was so mad at the hospital, the doctors and nurses, everyone associated with that day. For the first few years I blamed them for her death. I wrote nasty letters and met with a patient advocate. “These things happen Mrs. Joyce, they calmly explained to me around a big Mahogany conference table. “ One in 160 babies are stillborn every year.”
to be continued next week...